NBA Position: Big
General Information: 18 years old, played for Michigan State. From Carmel, IN.
Measurables: 6’11, 236 lbs, 7’5.25’ wingspan, 9’2” standing reach.
2016-17 Season Statistics: 10.9 PPG, 1.1 APG, 5.8 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 3.0 BPG, 1.8 TOPG (35 games played, 21.8 minutes a contest) – 51.3% FG, 79.7% FT, 39.6% 3P
Summary: Jaren Jackson Jr. has the tools, effort level, and skills to be an ideal modern NBA big man, with range beyond the three point line on offense, an elite ability to protect the rim, and success with covering guards in space. While the rest of the lottery’s bigs are hypothetical shooters OR defenders in one way or another, it’s not hypothetical with Jackson. He’s got a ton of developing to do, and there’s a legitimate question as to just how big of an offensive threat he’ll be, but he’s one of the youngest players in the class and sure doesn’t play like it on both ends. With his motor, length, quickness, and developing basketball IQ, he’s got an incredibly high ceiling.
Jackson is a very promising outside shooter, and finished the season shooting almost 40% from three on 96 attempts. Per Synergy, he shot 40% on all of his spot-up attempts (his most used offensive play) this season, good for the 72nd percentile in the NCAA. He’s got an odd push shot, which isn’t pretty but is consistent. These open threes against Maryland give a good view.
On one hand, smart NBA GMs and coaches should thank Tom Izzo for his rigid coaching strategy that locked Jackson into a stretch big role. As the NBA game moves away from heavy post-up reliance, Jackson’s ability as a shooter will be invaluable if he can reliably stretch it out to the NBA three point line. But playing next to Nick Ward and Miles Bridges had its lineup price, and it cost Jackson chances to show how he can create on the low-block or in the short corners with plenty of space.
Only 45% of Jackson’s shots at Michigan State came at the rim, per hoop-math.com, and a greater number of those were off cuts and transition plays. Only 14% of his offense came out of post-ups (30 total attempts). He averaged 1.28 PPP on those attempts, which is 98th percentile in the league... but when your 7’0 athletically-gifted big has almost as many spot-up attempts (74) as he had shot attempts on post-ups, cuts, and pick-and-roll plays combined (83), that’s probably a sign that skills could be hidden at the collegiate level.
Hopefully plays like this are a sign of things to come.
He also showcased a blooming playmaking instinct in the second half of the season. His size will draw doubles in the post, and a logical step in his versatile offensive development is to find open teammates. His assist numbers (39 total on the year) don’t do justice to passes like these.
Another big boon for Jackson is his massive free throw rate despite his low usage rate. He attempted 3.8 free throws a contest (making 3.0 of them, 79.7%), despite only getting 6.6 field goal attempts per game. His free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal) is .573, which is far above the other bigs in the class (Bagley at .475, Bamba at .441, and Ayton at .424). While he didn’t get anywhere close to the number of touches that Bagley or Ayton were given, it’s good to see he was still aggressive and got to the line a fair clip.
Jackson is as impressive a defensive prospect as the sport has seen in recent years. His timing and instincts as both a on-ball post defender and as a help defender are incredible for his age, and he swings his giant mitts like he’s a mad titan throwing a moon. He averaged 3 blocks a contest—5.5 per 40 minutes, and with a 14.3% block rate. He’s a game changer anywhere from below the free throw line extended.
He’s one of those rare players who is as good a defender as he is a shot blocker. He allows just .674 points per defensive possession and 27.5% shooting, per Synergy Sports. None of the other bigs in the class, even Mo Bamba, come close to his level of defensive awareness and success.
He’s got his head on a swivel, and does a great job of staying aware of where his man is AND where the ball is; very rarely does he get lost on defense. Still, as with any freshman, he’s certainly liable to make mistakes or over help. But the best part about Jackson’s defense is that he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Check out these three straight defensive possessions from Michigan State’s November match-up against Duke’s powerhouse bigs (hat tip to Cole Zwicker for leading me to this one).
In the first play, Jackson leaves Marvin Bagley to go attempt a help block, and Bagley gets an open put-back dunk. On the next two plays, even as other Blue Devils bring the ball into the paint, Jackson stays velcroed to Bagley... and still comes up with a steal and a block.
Later in the game, Jackson has to leave Bagley to stop a drive from Grayson Allen, which puts him out of position again when Bagley gets the rebound. Bagley has an opening for a clear shot, but Jackson’s ability to recover is inhuman.
Against Marvin Bagley, who has one of the quickest second-jumps of any prospect in recent memory, Jackson manages to swat the shot away despite Bagley having this much space.
Rim protection will always be vital in the NBA game, but in the modern pace-and-space, switch-happy NBA, what truly makes Jackson an elite prospect is his ability to guard smaller players. In isolation plays, Jackson allowed opponents to shoot just 16.7% against him; in pick-and-roll plays, the roll-man shot 30% against him, and the ball handler just 12.5%. With his timing and instincts—not to mention his reach, body control, and top-flight speed—he’s far-and-away the best perimeter and space defender of the classes’ top bigs. His ability to defend the pick-and-roll is going to be invaluable in the NBA.
On that last video against Minnesota, Jackson mirrors Jamir Harris on a full court drive and gets the block. He might be a step slow to stay with the De’Aaron Foxes of the NBA world, but he’ll be a defensive shadow to pretty much anyone else.
Jackson’s rebounding numbers aren’t great. Like everything else in his game, he competes, but his timing on the glass isn’t as great as it is on blocks. Some of this has to do with (1) his role as the stretch-big (a low 9.8% offensive rebounding rate), (2) Izzo’s lineups always having him sharing the floor with at least one (mostly two) others bigs, and (3) the fact that Nick Ward and Miles Bridges are rebounding vacuums. This will be an area to watch for significant improvement in the NBA.
Finally, Jackson was a foul machine. This is certainly not surprising; give a young man Jackson’s athletic gifts and defensive mentality, and he’s going to end up tagged with a lot of fouls (some he certainly didn’t earn). He averaged 5.9 per 40 minutes, which was certainly a contributor to his less than idea total playing time... but Tom Izzo didn’t need any help sending Jackson to the bench anyways. Jackson has to find the right balance between defensive determination and not making multiple silly fouls.
Jackson only played 21.8 MPG at Michigan State, which isn’t a whole lot of minutes for a high lottery pick; his 764 minutes of action are dwarfed by Marvin Bagley (1114), Wendell Carter (993), and Mo Bamba (906). Some of those low minutes were because of foul trouble, for sure (he had 4 or more fouls in over half his contests), but the other reasons are lost in the depths of Tom Izzo’s mind. Izzo questionable use of Jackson—from his iron-clad role as the stretch big, to the fact that he played Ben Carter (7.7 MPG this season) ahead of Jackson in their crunchtime, ugly loss to Syracuse “because of defense”—needs to be seriously considered when assessing Jackson.
Jackson is a firebrand on the court, and plays with ideal effort on both ends, but especially when he sniffs out a block. And judging by the improvements he made over the season, especially on the offensive end (see the playmaking and passing instincts I highlighted above that he began showcasing in mid-February), it’s safe to say he’s dedicated to improving his craft. But he was also the third/fourth/fifth option on offense on most nights, depending on how Bridges, Cassius Winston, Ward, and Joshua Langford were feeling that evening. Unless he develops a go-to scorer attitude that he did not show in college, it’s fair to question just how high an offensive option he’ll end up in the NBA. But he also was one of the most even-keeled performers of the lottery prospects, and made significant impacts on most nights even while getting just 6.6 shot attempts per conference.
Fit with Sacramento:
The best thing about Jackson’s skillset for the Kings is that he could realistically play with any one of the Kings bigs that ends up being a long-term piece of the puzzle.
Sacramento could certainly use a rim protector and a big with a not-hypothetical floor spacing game, and Jackson’s defensive intensity would be a breath of fresh air with both Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein’s inconsistencies in both technique and effort. He can be the center Cauley-Stein never wanted to be while also offering floor spacing so Willie has clear lanes to the basket. He and Skal could realistically swap off high/low-post spots at will, and if Harry Giles hits the ceiling the Kings are so desperately projecting he WILL, Giles and Jackson are both such athletic, speedy bigs that they wouldn’t lose a step against even small-ball lineups. Having a size advantage while also being able to maintain the defense to guard small would be a massive boon to the Kings moving forward.
The one downside to Jackson is obvious—while I’m very high on Jackson being a great role player at the next level, he wouldn’t provide the go-to scoring potential that DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter, or Luka Doncic have. The Kings need a 1A scoring option, and while I have serious faith in Jackson’s development, he didn’t show the mentality in college that indicates a long-term alpha scorer. If you can get past that, Jackson has an incredibly high and versatile ceiling and would be a great fit for the Kings.